Are you looking for how to keep the heart healthy or how to improve your heart health? Did you know deaths from heart disease are the number 1 killer in the U.S.? That’s why heart health is so important.
We are going to look at how to improve heart health naturally. Have you considered what diet and foods you eat in relation to heart health? Foods might actually play a big role in the health of your heart. So what is a healthy heart diet?
A cardiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Kerrilynn C. Hennessey, MD, might have an answer for you on what that healthy heart diet is. She’s studied the heart and all the studies about heart health, and she chooses to eat the Mediterranean diet at every meal of the day.
She says she follows a mostly plant-based diet, and so has chosen the Mediterranean Diet, a form of the plant-based diet. She does it wholeheartedly (no pun intended), eating it at every meal of the day. Not just one meal a day or every once in a while.
She so strongly believes in it, that she eats this way at every meal. She makes sure to eat a heart-healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner every day by doing the Mediterranean diet all day long.
Why She Believes It’s the Healthiest Way to Eat for the Heart
As a cardiologist, and thus a medical expert on the heart, she has seen a 2018 study that showed an increase in animal protein, but not vegetable protein, contributed to heart failure. This is not a surprise, as Dr. Colin Campbell found animal protein to be detrimental to health, causing more than just heart disease. And Harvard Medical has come to similar conclusions.
She also seeks to cut out red meat as much as possible. She has seen all the evidence that links it to higher rates of heart disease. Dr. Hennessey also says that the Mediterranean diet has continuously shown in studies to lower mortality rates, compared to eating diets with higher intakes of red meat.
She reports eating avocados and nuts on an almost daily basis, the same as I like to do. Nuts for example are eaten a lot in the healthy Blue Zone diets. Staples for her are beans and olive oil, which are exactly what our family staples are as well. And beans are most definitely a staple for Blue Zones diets.
My Thoughts On Her Heart Healthy Diet
I do think this is a good diet for a beginner to grow into eating a more plant-based diet, as she makes some allowances for minimal amounts of meat. For most people, I would say this is the easiest way for them to get started in a more plant-based way of eating.
The studies absolutely point to an increased risk of heart disease and other diseases from consuming meat and animal products. I think she is definitely on point with her diet plan of eating less meat and more plants in order to improve heart health.
I would say that ultimately it would be even better to eat no or very little meat or dairy products. So the lower we can get animal-based foods, the better for our health and environment. That is what truly mimics the “real” Mediterranean diet, which was basically no meat at all. See my video on the “Real Mediterranean Diet”
The plant-based diet contains many heart-healthy foods. These foods contain tons of nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants that are all great for heart health, and for lowering the risk of heart disease.
A plant-based diet can also help to lower sodium intake which can improve blood pressure. Plant based foods also lower cholesterol levels which has a positive impact against heart disease.
Meats (especially red meat and processed meat), sugar, and fried foods with trans fats can have a negative effect on heart health and can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
One aspect of the original Mediterranean diet was the use of lots of heart healthy olive oil. In fact, the Ikarian Greeks were one of the five groups who were studied in the Blue Zones project as being the longest living and healthiest people in the world. It was these Greeks in which the popular Mediterranean diet has been based.
If we look at what they ate, one of their staple foods was olive oil. As I explain in the WFPBNO Diet Guide, olive oil is one of those oils that are actually healthy for us, and good for the heart.
Don’t just take my word for it, look what the American Heart Association has to say about olive oil for a healthier heart. Research shows that eating more than half a tablespoon of olive oil a day for men, lowered cardiovascular disease risk by 15% and lowered the risk of coronary heart disease by 21%. Olive oil has heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, which help to lower cholesterol.
Avocado oil is also found to be a heart-healthy oil.
Heart Healthy Vegetables
Leafy green vegetables have been found to be very good for the heart. Some studies have found that eating more of these leafy green vegetables, led to a lower risk of heart disease. These leafy vegetables include kale, spinach, and collard greens and are high in Vitamin K which helps protect arteries and keep them flexible. Low levels of vitamin K is linked with calcification in the arteries.
These vegetables also have lots of fiber, which helps to pull excess circulating cholesterol out of the body. Lower LDL cholesterol levels lead to better heart health. And on top of all that they have carotenoids, which are antioxidants that help battle harmful effects in the body and reduce inflammation.
Kale is also high in nitrates which increase nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels and helps more blood to move toward the heart and decrease blood pressure. All good things for the heart which doesn’t have to pump as hard.
Spinach is great because it contains lots of potassium. Potassium helps ease any stress on blood vessel walls.
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and bok choy have Vitamin C and E as well as plenty of antioxidants. These help to fight against free radicals which damage cells and can reduce the risk of heart disease. (In fact, a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet is found to lower heart disease) These vegetables also help to fight inflammation, which can be unhealthy for the heart.
Brussel Sprouts have plenty of folate in them, which lowers the amino acid homocysteine. This amino acid can damage the lining of blood vessels when it gets too high, and increase blood clotting.
Collard Greens have magnesium, which has been found to lower blood pressure in patients with high blood pressure. Magnesium may help to relax blood vessels and increase blood flow through the body and pressure on the heart.
Green Beans are packed with folate, fiber, as well as vitamins A, B and C. These antioxidants help fight inflammation and hypertension.
Heart-Healthy Food List
Let’s look at a list of some of the best foods for heart health.
- Green Leafy Vegetables – As mentioned previously, these are loaded with fiber and other antioxidants like carotenoids to make your heart happy.
- Berries – Just like the leafy vegetables, these are loaded with antioxidants as well as flavonoids called anthocyanins. All of these help fight inflammation which causes heart disease and decrease blood pressure. An analysis of 22 studies found that eating berries lowered LDL “bad” cholesterol, inflammation and blood pressure. Another found that blueberries improved the function of cells lining blood vessel walls.
- Nuts, Walnuts, Almonds – Nuts have heart-healthy fiber. And they contain vitamin E which helps lower bad cholesterol. Eating walnuts was found to lower LDL cholesterol, inflammation, oxidative stress, and blood pressure. Walnuts and some other kinds of nuts are high in a plant based omega 3 fatty acid called ALA. ALA improves inflammation and circulation. Some studies have found a link between eating nuts and lowered risk of heart disease. Almonds were found to possibly increase HDL or good cholesterol, which can reduce the buildup of plaque in the arteries.
- Oatmeal – Oatmeal has a lot of soluble fiber which can soak up cholesterol and remove it from the body, thus lowering cholesterol.
- Green Tea or Matcha– Green tea has tons of health benefits. It contains polyphenols and catechins which protect heart health, reduce inflammation, and prevent cell damage. Green tea was also found to lower blood pressure and LDL levels. A 2013 study found those drinking four or more cups of green tea a day had a 20% lower risk for heart disease and stroke. A previous study found lower deaths and heart disease among green tea drinkers.
- Olive Oil – As noted earlier, olive oil is very good for the heart. It has lots of antioxidants and is anti-inflammatory. A lot of studies have shown that it reduces the risk of heart disease. One, in particular, showed a 48% lower chance of heart disease mortality from a high intake of olive oil. Olive oil was also found to lower blood pressure. And another study found those at a high risk for heart disease who followed a Mediterranean diet (plant-based foods) with nuts and at least four tablespoons a day of olive oil, reduced their risk of heart attack, stroke, and mortality by 30%
- Whole Grains – Whole grains are grains that are in their whole form and not refined. This includes oatmeal, rye, quinoa, barley, brown rice, buckwheat, and whole wheat (but not wheat flour). It’s important to note that you should try to avoid products that have the ingredient wheat flour, whole wheat flour or enriched flour. The wheat is no longer in its whole form. Look for Ezekiel bread when buying bread, since it keeps the wheat in the whole form and never uses flours. Whole grains are high in fiber which helps to lower bad cholesterol, reduce heart disease, and lower blood pressure.
- Beans / Legumes – Studies have found beans to be very good for the heart (Remember the old song we sang as kids?). They have been found to decrease the risk of heart disease. One study found those who ate beans at least four times a week had a 22% lower risk of heart disease. They have been found to lower bad LDL cholesterol levels and reduce blood pressure and inflammation. They also have resistant starch which improves heart health by improving cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels. Beans may also help with blood sugar levels.
- Seeds – Hemp seeds, chia seeds and flax seeds are great sources for fiber and omega-3s. They have been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol and decrease blood pressure. Also, tahini, which is made from sesame seeds, has been shown to lower cholesterol and improve artery healthy.
- Soy – Soy products such as tofu or edamame are found to be very beneficial for the heart. Soy contains isoflavones which can lower cholesterol and improve the health of the heart. One study found those eating at least one serving of tofu a week saw an 18% lower risk of heart disease.
- Garlic and Onions – You may have seen a product called Garlique promoted for heart health. This is because garlic has been found to be extremely beneficial to heart health. Garlic has a substance called allicin which helps to give it these great heart benefits. Garlic was also found to lower LDL cholesterol and prevent platelet buildup to reduce the risk of blood clots. One study found that garlic lowered blood pressure more than a prescription drug. It’s best to eat garlic in its raw form for the most potency. One 2017 study found that adults who consumed more garlic and onions had a 64% less chance of cardiovascular disease.
- Dark Chocolate – Studies have shown that those eating more dark chocolate had lower risks for heart disease and calcified plaque in the arteries. Dark chocolate contains flavonoids called polyphenols, which might help blood pressure, inflammation, and clotting. But it needs to be dark chocolate, anything that is at least 70% cocoa. Milk chocolate on the other hand has less cocoa and more added sugar. Another even better option is to grab some cacao powder or cacao nibs which are pure unprocessed cocoa with no added sugars.
- Tomatoes – One review found that eating foods higher in lycopene, a powerful antioxidant found in plants, led to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke. In the reverse, low levels of lycopene in the blood have been connected with higher risks for heart attack or stroke. Tomatoes are high in lycopene which can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. One study found that women eating raw tomatoes saw an increase in good HDL cholesterol. This good cholesterol can help to remove cholesterol and plaque from the arteries. Tomatoes are also high in potassium which is good for blood pressure.
- Citrus Fruits – One study found women eating more citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits had less risk of ischemic stroke.
- Potatoes – If potatoes are prepared in a healthy manner and not deep-fried to make French fries, then they are great for the heart. They contain lots of potassium which lowers blood pressure. And they have lots of fiber which can help prevent heart disease.
- Coffee – It was found that drinking two cups of coffee might lower cardiovascular disease risk and stroke by 30%. Coffee, like green tea, has some natural antioxidants.
- Avocados – Avocados like olive oil are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats can lower cholesterol levels and heart disease risk. Avocados are also high in potassium which can lower blood pressure. One study found that eating avocados reduced bad cholesterol. As a final benefit, avocados have plenty of antioxidants.
- Pomegranates – Pomegranates have polyphenols and anthocyanins, which are antioxidants that help fight against artery hardening. One study showed an improvement of blood flow to the heart for heart disease patients who started drinking a serving of pomegranate juice daily.
- Apples – In a study, it was found that middle aged adults who ate one apple a day, reduced a substance that leads to artery hardening by 40%.
- Beets – Beets have Betalains, which provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. They can also decrease blood pressure by dilating blood vessels.
- Peppers – Spicy peppers and chili peppers have anti-inflammatory benefits. Plus, they have been shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and improve blood circulation.
As you can see from the list of foods that are good for the heart, plant-based foods are packed with tons of benefits for your heart’s health. Sticking to a Whole Food Plant-Based diet should help to either improve your heart health or keep it healthy. Dr. Campbell even mentions the possibility of reversing heart disease.
Supplements and Vitamins for Heart Health
I think that if you are doing a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet you will be getting plenty of the proper nutrition from the foods you eat. Just as Dr. Campbell says, there is no need to really supplement or take these vitamins, which are the foods broken down into parts.
As we saw above, so many plant-based foods are very good for the heart. Most vitamins or supplements for the heart, just mimic or have the same ingredients as what we find in whole foods.
A lot of studies were done on people just eating the whole foods listed above, and not taking vitamins or supplements. They were able to see improvements just from the foods themselves. Plus, it can be much cheaper.
In fact, according to John Hopkins, their research shows that vitamins and supplements had no effect on preventing heart disease compared to placebos. The only thing that might be beneficial is an omega-3. But you can get plenty of these from chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds olive oil, nuts and avocados. They even say what I was saying previously, the best source of vitamins and supplements is from food. And in the food you can get much higher amounts of antioxidants, than from a small supplement. They also state there is a risk to taking vitamins and supplements, and you don’t always know if you are getting what the label actually states.
The only one that you may consider supplementing with might be Garlique. And this is because for many people, garlic can be uncomfortable to consume raw, and it might cause your breath to have a strong garlic flavor afterwards.
Heart Healthy Meals
What are some good heart healthy meals incorporating plant based foods? Let’s take a look.
Heart Healthy Breakfast
Coffee is always a good choice at breakfast and has tons of healthy benefits. I think oatmeal is the best way to get a nice serving or two of whole grains for the day. On top of the oatmeal you can put other heart healthy items such as:
- Hemp seeds
- Ground flax seeds
- Soaked or regular chia seeds
- Soy milk or almond milk
- Peanut butter or almond butter
- Fruits such as berries and bananas
Sometimes I will also make some delicious almond flour pancakes, which are loaded with heart healthy almonds. You also get some olive oil along with them.
Heart Healthy Lunch
For lunch you could go for a spinach salad or a green smoothie. You can add nuts to this or snack on nuts later if needed. Also, avocado and olive oil can add some healthy calories and help to fill you up and keep you full longer. Another easy option is an Ezekiel bread sandwich such as a peanut butter or almond butter sandwich. Dr. Hennessey also likes hummus, which is from the Mediterranean diet.
Black bean burgers or any other type of plant based burger are great options that can be very satisfying.
Heart Healthy Snacks
Nuts of any kind are a great option as a heart healthy snack. You can eat raw nuts, or go for a nut butter such as peanut butter, almond butter or sunflower butter. Another good snack option might be homemade popcorn.
Heart Healthy Dinner
Dinner can also include a salad as a side. The main course can be a bean-based dish, such as a lentil dish or vegetarian chili. Also add some cooked potatoes or sweet potatoes as a side. And include a whole grain such as brown rice or quinoa to go with the dish.
Heart Healthy Desserts
Dr. Hennessey recommends cutting down on desserts that are not good for the heart, but says they can be still eaten in minimal amounts every so often.
I think a great heart healthy option if you don’t mind cooking are black bean brownies. They sound strange but are great, and you are getting a nice dose of beans, which are heart friendly.
Another heart healthier option might be almond flour chocolate chip or any other cookie. You get the benefits of almonds along with them.
Also, there are some vegan ice creams made from plant milks which would be a much better option than regular ice cream. We also once made a frozen banana ice cream which was actually pretty good!
Heart Healthy Recipes
Here’s a list of some recipes that would be great heart healthy meals. The ones at the bottom are ones that we personally use a lot.
- Black Bean Burgers – Here’s a super easy version of black bean burgers with only four ingredients.
- Strawberry Spinach Salad with Avocado and Walnuts
- Mushroom and Tofu Stir Fry
- Stuffed Potatoes with Salsa and Beans
- Vegetarian Chili
- Red Curry Lentils
- Coconut Curry Lentils
- Vegetarian Black Bean Enchiladas – Instead of whole wheat tortillas, we use corn tortillas as a healthy alternative
Healthy Heart Soups
Vegetarian soups can be a great choice as heart healthy meals. They contain tons of beans which are great for the heart. This gives you lots of fiber and antioxidants. They also tend to be low in saturated fats which is another plus. Here are a couple of healthy soup recipes.
F.A.Q. About Heart Healthy Foods
Are Nuts Heart Healthy?
Nuts are very heart healthy. They are a good source of unsaturated fats. There are studies linking nuts to a lower risk of heart disease. Nuts have fiber which is good for your heart and vitamin E which lowers bad cholesterol. Walnuts and some other nuts have the fatty acid ALA, which helps blood circulation and inflammation.
Walnuts have been found to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, decrease inflammation and oxidative stress. And they have a positive effect on blood pressure. Almonds have been found to raise good cholesterol levels. Eat nuts whenever you can as a snack that is easy to take with you and very convenient. Also, try to use different nut butters such as almond butter, peanut butter and sunflower butter. Another option is to bake with almond flour instead of regular or wheat flour.
Are Eggs Heart Healthy?
Eggs have a lot of cholesterol in the yolks, so there are some questions about them and their effect on heart health. One study found that up to an egg a day in Chinese adults lowered the risk of heart disease. Another study, found that eating up to 12 eggs a week for three months did not increase cardiovascular risk in those studied.
The American Heart Association recommends one egg per day or two eggs whites for those who eat them, but don’t overdo it. Also remember, eggs still are a source that has a higher amount of the amino acid leucine, even if not as high as meat or dairy. Animal based protein sources should be minimized or completely removed for optimum health.
Are Potatoes Heart Healthy?
Yes! Potatoes, as long as they are not deep fried to make french fries or loaded with sour cream and cheese, can be great for the heart. They have potassium which lowers blood pressure and lots of fiber which is beneficial against heart disease.
Is Cheese Heart Healthy?
Cheese is not very good for heart health. Cheese is high in sodium and saturated fats. All of which can increase blood pressure and raise bad cholesterol. Bad cholesterol contributes to heart disease. While it is better for the heart than red meat, researchers found that replacing cheese with plant based fats, lowered the risk of heart disease by 24%. Dr. Hennessey admits it’s not good, but will eat small amounts of cheese on occasion.
How to Have a Healthy Heart
Factors that contribute to having a healthier heart are:
- Lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and triglycerides
- Reducing blood pressure
- Reducing inflammation
- Lower A1C blood sugar levels
- Lower fat around the waist (waistline size)
- Lower weight or BMI
- Resting heart rate
These are generally the numbers to look at when looking at heart health. These are numbers that your doctor might test for you. Eating a Whole Food Plant Based diet can benefit all of these numbers and improve your heart health.
What is a Healthy Heart Rate Range?
A healthy heart rate range for adults is between 60 to 100 beats per minute while at rest. This is called the resting heart rate and should only be taken after resting or in the morning before getting up. A lower resting heart rate can mean better cardiac efficiency. Sometimes well-trained athletes can have resting heart rates well below 60 B.P.M. A higher resting heart rate can mean an increase in risk for cardiovascular disease, while a lower resting heart rate can be a predictor for a lower risk of heart disease.
Heart Health Tips
First, we looked at heart healthy diet foods and the role the critical role diet and food play in our overall heart health. But, food and diet isn’t the only thing that can improve the health of your heart, let’s look at some other ways below.
Heart Health and Exercise
Just getting moving and staying active can have a positive impact on your heart health. The heart is a muscle, and exercise will strengthen it. Constant movement or activity throughout the day is much preferable to sitting or non-movement activities. When exercising, try to get your heart rate up high enough into the target heart rate level in order to get the most benefit to the heart. A lot of research has shown that HIIT or high intensity interval training can be just as good for the heart than longer workout routines, with much less time involved.
I started doing Tabata and Sprint Interval Training (SIT) and I saw an improvement of about 15 B.P.M. for my resting heart rate.
Smoking has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. So, if you smoke now, you may want to think about quitting.
Heart Health and Sleep
Lack of sleep has been linked to not just health and mental issues, but it is also has effects on heart health. Getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night can be linked to higher blood pressure levels and obesity, both of which are harder on the heart. Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night and work on healthy sleep habits. Also, get tested if you think you might have sleep apnea, as this can lead to lower quality sleep and health problems. If you are having trouble with sleeping, you may need to see a sleep therapist.
Heart Health and Stress
Stress can lead to higher blood pressure and heart rates. Not only that, it can lead to higher cholesterol levels, smoking, lack of physical activity, and obesity. Not all stress is bad, as explained in the TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal below. But you want to have healthy ways of coping with stress and not allowing it to overwhelm your system. It’s good to practice taking walks outside, spending time in nature, having breaks from work, spending more time with family and friends, volunteering, and working on your mental health through activities such as journaling. You may also want to read mental health books or see a counselor or therapist.
Heart Health and Alcohol
Alcohol is a little bit tricky when it comes to heart health. The key is moderation. There are some studies indicating that those who have a moderate daily consumption of alcohol or wine have lower risks for heart disease. This moderate consumption is 1-2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women.
But overconsumption of alcohol is detrimental to heart health. Too much alcohol can raise triglyceride and blood pressure, as well as having other negative effects on the body. It can also lead to heart failure and stroke. Also, excess drinking can prematurely age the arteries, especially in men. Also, excess calories from alcohol can lead to weight gain or obesity.
To improve heart health, make sure to eat a Whole Food Plant Based Diet. This could be a plant-based Mediterranean diet as Dr. Hennessey does, but it doesn’t have to be. Some people like the Ornish diet. Any WFPB diet should work. Try to incorporate some of the foods mentioned earlier from the heart healthy food list.
Also try to stay active, get exercise, get enough sleep, quit smoking, cope with stress correctly, and minimize alcohol consumption.
The original article from Well and Good – ‘I’m a Cardiologist, and This Is What I Eat Every Day for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner’